Understanding the Importance of Context in Coaching

All too often coaching engagements aren’t successful because coaches don’t fully understand how sudden changes in organizational context can radically impact a leader’s ability to succeed under a very different set of work conditions.

Recently, a coaching colleague of mine who had never held a leadership position in business confessed to me that she didn’t believe it was necessary for her to understand the business setting in which her coaching clients operated in order for her to perform successfully as a coach. “The same basic principles of coaching apply, regardless of the organizational setting,” she argued, “so why do I need to understand organizational context?” Why, indeed? 

The answer is that all too often coaching engagements aren’t successful because coaches don’t fully understand how sudden changes in organizational context can radically impact a leader’s ability to succeed under a very different set of work conditions. In other words, changes in business context place different adaptive demands on organizational leaders, which, in turn, require leaders to make use of different types of leadership skills and expertise. 

To illustrate, allow me to share with you three examples from my own coaching experience:

  • A successful leader of an operations function began to experience performance difficulties during the two years his company was greatly expanding its international footprint. A little additional probing on my part revealed that this leader seemed to perform well when he was operating in work settings in which he could employ “eyeball management”—in other words, conduct iterative face-to-face discussions with his direct reports. His difficulties arose when his scope of control expanded across a distributed international setting, requiring him to communicate more clearly and precisely when conveying his performance expectations and feedback through texts, e-mails, and phone calls. A second layer of complexity involved his ability to shift his communication style so he could build positive relationships with team members who represented very different national cultures.
  • I once coached an executive whose abrasive leadership style resulted in complaints to HR and the loss of two of her key people. The situation had been tolerated by the former CEO, who modeled the same behavior. The situation abruptly changed when a new CEO came on board. The new CEO informed his direct reports that he wanted to change the company culture. As part of this change, he was expecting his direct reports to adopt a more collaborative leadership style. While several executives had made positive changes in this area, my client was having difficulty understanding that what had worked before for her in the past (under the blind eye of the former CEO) was not going to work for her in the future.
  • Another of my coaching clients had successfully performed for several years in a company that boasted a steady, if not stellar, performance record. All of that changed when an eroding customer market and aggressive competitors caused the company to experience a sharp financial decline. The result was that within a year the company went from “stable state” to “turnaround.” For my client, this required the ability to quickly make some difficult decisions. What actions was he prepared to take to achieve a significant reduction in his budget? How many people would have to be laid off, and what new organizational structure was he going to propose as a means of maintaining performance with significantly reduced staff and resources? The challenge facing this very nice and humane leader was that he had never before had to make these types of tough emotional leadership calls. He found himself thrust into a very different work context, which demanded very different things of him as a leader.

Transitional Coaching

The issue of organizational context in coaching is particularly critical when we are engaged in transitional coaching, in which we are being asked to help newly hired leaders make a “soft landing” into a new work environment. Ten years ago, author and consultant Michael Watkins wrote a great article for Harvard Business Review, entitled “Picking the Right Transition Strategy” (January, 2009 issue). The major theme of the article was that in order make a successful transition into a new organization, leaders first needed to understand the stage of business development in which their new employer was operating. Watkins coined the acronym, STARS, to identify five alternative organizational stages of development; e.g., Start-Up, Turnaround, Accelerated Growth, Realignment, and Sustaining Success

Depending upon the stage in which a company is operating, different business and leadership demands take precedence, requiring leaders to adapt their leadership behaviors according. Some leaders successfully make these transitions, while others require coaching to help them understand that their old tools need to be discarded or adapted to meet the demands of the new environment. 

For example, leaders who are moving into organizational start-ups are tasked with building new processes and systems, and creating entirely new work teams and functions. This often happens within a sea of chaos, in which leaders can’t rely on ready-made “paint-by-the-numbers” solutions. This contextual setting can pose serious leadership challenges to any executive who has spent the last several years performing within a stable, well-organized “sustaining success” company. Coaches who understand the concept of organizational context will be sensitive to how they need to adapt their coaching strategies to help such leaders succeed.

I could go on, but I think you see my point. When we view the coaching process strictly in terms of helping leaders to learn new behaviors, or identify some critical aspects of their personalities, then we fall into the mistake of trying to adopt an ineffective “one- size-fits-all” approach to coaching. Simply put, if good leadership is about being able to successfully adapt to changing conditions, then context becomes critical to coaching success. Give it some thought. 

Dr. Robert Barner is a Dallas-based talent development consultant and executive coach, and the co-author with Dr. Ken Ideus of the book, “Working Deeply: Transforming lives through transformational coaching.” Contact him through ibscribe@me.com